We may think we love olive oil, but Evren Polat is convinced much of what Canadians are buying at grocery stores isn’t the real thing.
“Canadians know about wine. But olive oil? Not a clue,” says Mr. Polat, who immigrated to Canada from Turkey with his wife, Ipek, in 2004.
Two years later, they used a combination of savings and a bank loan to open their first olive oil store, Ta-Ze, in Toronto, after securing exclusive Canadian rights. Ta-Ze, the retail arm of Turkish olive oil producer Taris, sells fair-trade olive oil produced by a union of 28,000 farmers along the west coast of the country.
Mr. Polat is convinced that much of the olive oil labelled as extra virgin in Canadian stores isn’t authentic. “Real olive oil will change your kitchen. And it tastes totally different,” he says.
He was shocked to see olive oils for as little as $5 in Canada.
“That price is impossible,” he says. “People were starting to [understand] the health benefits, but this wasn’t the real oil.”
Although the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has regulations in place to ensure olive oil labelled as virgin or extra virgin adheres to the standards set by the International Olive Oil Council – the European trade council whose members produce 98 per cent of the world’s olive oil – fraud is not uncommon. Ten per cent of 111 samples tested in Canada between 2009 and 2011 were diluted with vegetable or mineral oil.
But the agency maintains that although it does inspect olive oils (it largely targets products that are red-flagged because of consumer complaints, or because the producer has been caught adulterating a product in the past), the onus remains on importers, distributors and retailers to ensure their product is genuine.
For Mr. Polat, bringing the Ta-Ze brand to Canada was a no-brainer.
“We didn’t want to just sell olive oil,” he says. “We wanted to educate people. We want them to have the real product.”
All 33 of Taris’s oils, in every single harvest, are laboratory-tested by the IOOC to verify purity.
Persuading Sherway Gardens, the Toronto mall where Mr. Polat wanted his first location, to admit an olive oil specialty shop wasn’t easy.
“We turned him away,” says Scott Kyle, then a general manager of Sherway when Mr. Polat approached him in 2005. Mr. Polat kept trying and, eventually, Mr. Kyle came around.
“We started to understand that it was a single-source product and the purity level was unmatched.”
He was so convinced, in fact, that, when he left his job at Sherway Gardens to become an independent retail consultant, Mr. Polat became his first client.
In the fall of 2011, Mr. Polat opened a second store near Bay Street. He recruited design firm Burdifilek to create the space, which boasts marble counters and glass cabinets showcasing premium oils (which sell for $25 to $35 per 500-ml bottle), as well as balsamic vinegar, olives and dishes and bottles for serving and storage.
Next, Mr. Polat will open a 1,000-square-foot store in Toronto’s Yorkdale mall in November, with more to follow.
“Buy it from us or buy it from someone else, it doesn’t matter. We just want people to buy the real thing.”